This is the second of a two-part piece. Read part one.
If we accept that many rich people are going to find attractive this scenario of dramatically different settlement patterns that feature new aggregation – widely dispersed – the question then becomes whether information technology will ever become a global influence on the built environment, shaping the way the middle class and even the working class live, the way railroads, jets, and automobiles did.
I would argue that the answer is yes. “Jet set” used to refer to the wealthy. Horseless carriages were once a luxury. But none of this is any longer true. In fact, this “Santa-Fe-ing” pattern of dispersion plus aggregation looks a lot like the behavior of corporations over the last half century. The only difference is that now, due to Moore’s Law’s continuing precipitous drop in the price of information technology, the benefits have become affordable to a burgeoning number of individuals.
For half a century, corporations have put each piece of their puzzle wherever they find comparative advantage. They figured out that with enough mainframes and toll-free telephone lines, they could put their headquarters one place, their research and development a second place, their factories a third place, their back-shop paper-shuffling a fourth place, their call centers a fifth place, and their salesmen all over the place. This information-technology-driven dispersion contributed hugely to the rise of aggregations we see in the edge cities of places like the Route 128 corridor around Boston, the birthplace of high technology.
Talk to corporate location specialists and they will happily tell you that of the top 100 things their clients look for, the first 99 is qualified workforce. If the facility in question is a sneaker factory, that means people who will work for pennies an hour, and the answer may be Malaysia. If this means advanced innovation, the answer is places where smart people are willing to cluster, like Silicon Valley – and Bangalore, India.
The core premise of the Santa-Fe-ing hypothesis is that this sort of choice is now available to millions, and soon billions. Because of the ability of Moore’s Law to bring technology to the masses at an accelerating rate, similar choices are now available to individuals, who can look to live, work, play, pray, shop and die wherever they see comparable advantage. They are no longer inextricably tethered to huge, centrally located organizations.
At the time of the American Revolution, in the Agrarian Age, more than 95 percent of all people lived outside what then passed for cities, because wresting profit from the land through farming, trapping, forestry and the like was how wealth was created. Today, however, technology has allowed a tiny number of people to farm thousands of acres, and the number of people in these occupations in the U.S. has dropped to less than 2 percent.
Similarly, half a century ago, at the height of the Industrial Age, the majority of all Americans were in blue-collar manufacturing jobs. Today it’s 19 percent and dropping while the number of people in “service occupations” exceed 78 percent. This is not all about a decline in industrial competitiveness. The U.S. steel industry is the most productive in the world. That’s because it has lowered the number of man-hours per ton of steel to very low rates, by the increasing use of Information Age cleverness to make its product. Even automobile manufacturing has used information technology to redraw the map of where it builds cars. Who, a generation ago, would have expected Mercedes to locate its U.S. assembly plant in Alabama?
There’s no reason to think the rest of the developing world is not following the pattern of Santa Fe-ization. But as the cost of enabling technology drops precipitously, this effect is already transforming the built environment worldwide – including in such unlikely places as Croatia and Ecuador that are usually not the favorite subjects of futuristic speculation.
There are already 30 African nations with more cell phones than landlines. If you look at the billboards in a megacity like Lagos, you will be convinced that the three biggest industries in Nigeria are evangelical churches, health food supplements, and cell phones. At this writing, it’s already almost a decade since Filipinos ousted a tyrant for the first time using cell phone text messaging to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people for street demonstrations in under an hour. In developing countries the proportion of people with access to a phone grew an astonishing 25 percent in the 1990s, according to the Worldwatch Institute, an organization devoted to “an environmentally sustainable and socially just society.” One in five of the world’s population had used a mobile phone by 2002—up from 1 in 237 in 1992. This remarkable pattern fueled connections to the internet. In 1992, just 1 in 7,788 of the world’s population had used the internet. In 2002, 1 in 10 had.
To be sure, these patterns are not distributed uniformly. In places capable of great technological sophistication, such as China and Russia, governments who fear their own dissidents – and thus try to control information – have attempted to intentionally slow the revolution. Some Middle Eastern societies recoil at dissemination of Western ideas in general, and pornography in particular. Latin America is hampered by low literacy rates. There are some failed places on earth marked by such outrageous politics, pathetic infrastructure, abysmal annual incomes and few cities that it’s hard to imagine how they will achieve any significant development any time soon. Singapore researchers examining internet uptake in Asia pointed to a familiar list of failed suspects: Bangladesh, Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Laos and Myanmar.
Nonetheless, the gap between the haves and have-nots has hardly proven to be hopelessly rigid, as the migration of software-writing jobs to India has demonstrated. The International Telecommunication Union, tallying broad measures of connectedness worldwide, including affordability, found Slovenia tied with France. Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan were ahead of the United States. In the Caribbean basin, access for the Bahamas, St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Costa Rica, St. Lucia and Grenada were ahead of Russia. The Eastern European nations of Estonia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, the Slovak Republic, Croatia, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Belarus and Romania were ahead of China. The Singapore researchers found that a lack of English-speakers did not necessarily correlate with poor technology pickup. In a post-literate world – in which the internet increasingly becomes something you watch and listen to, rather than read – low literacy rates were less a barrier than one might expect, at least in Asia. The digital divide seems to be narrowing, a University of Toronto study says. The demographic lag between those who use the Internet in developing countries and those who use it in the United States was about five years, the Canadian researchers reported. This technology is getting to the masses a lot faster than did electricity, radio, washing machines, refrigerators, television, air conditioners and automobiles.
The big difference between information technologies and others separating the haves from the have-nots is price. Because The Curve rules, costs drop dramatically. The transformative stuff quickly becomes affordable and ubiquitous, even in developing countries. How can this not have consequences for our material world?
Every urban African I’ve ever talked to would prefer to be living in his or her village. They say they came to the city for economic opportunity, not out of preference. They return to their villages every chance they get.
If, as the price of information technology approaches zero – transforming everything from transportation to markets – at the same time that the problems of megacities become more and more intractable, the value of being someplace that is great for reasons that can’t be digitized will broaden.
If this puts a cap on the growth of megacities by spreading the benefits of urbanity more broadly – the way the automobile drained immigrant ghettos like the Lower East Side of Manhattan into the former cow pastures and potato farms of New Jersey and Long Island during the middle 20th century – I’m not sure that’s so bad.
What started in Santa Fe could transform the world.
Joel Garreau is Lincoln Professor of Law, Culture and Values at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law and the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at Arizona State University. He is a fellow at The New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., and author of several best-selling books including Radical Evolution, Edge City and The Nine Nations of North America.